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Most untranslatable word

on Thursday 27 November 2008 Written by David Martin

The special words that are somehow lost in translation. The Times has translated for you the most untranslatable word in the world.

The word is ilunga, from the Bantu language of Tshiluba, and means a person ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.

The Times - IlingaIlunga came top of a list drawn up with the help of 1,000 professional translators, narrowly beating shlimazl, Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person, and radioustukacz, Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the iron Curtain.

In the English language, googly (as in cricket), Spam (as in tins) and gobbledegook (as in Plain English Campaign press releases) were among the most untranslatable words, but the top place was, surprisingly, reserved for plenipotentiary.
No problem for classicists there surely? It means a special ambassador or envoy, invested with full powers. Next!

Whimsy, bumf and serendipity (the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident), poppycock (which is what you may consider all this), chuffed (which is what I am to be writing it) and kitsch (oh, you know) were other English words to make the Top Ten.

"My own vote would have gone to googly" said Jurga Zilinskiene, the managing director of Today Translations, which organised the survey. "People sometimes forget that an interpreter must translate not just from one language to another but from one culture to another." A googly, for any Anglophones still in doubt, is an off-breaking ball in cricket bowled with an apparent leg-break action on the part of the bowler. Howz at?!?

Today asked its linguists to vote for the most untranslatable word in languages other than English, which is where ilunga narrowly outpointed shlimazl and radioustukacz.

Linguists taking part in the poll were native speakers of languages ranging from English and French to Turkish, Ukrainian, Chinese, Dari, Farsi, Amharic and many others.

The top ten non-English words voted hardest to translate:

1. ilunga - Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.
2. shlimazl - Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person.
3. radioustukacz - Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.
4. naa - Japanese word used only in Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone.
5. altahmam - Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.
6. gezellig - Dutch for cosy.
7. saudade - Portuguese for a certain type of longing.
8. selathirupavar - Tamil for a certain type of truancy.
9. pochemuchka - Russian for a person who asks lots of questions.
10. klloshar - loser in Albanian.

At Today Translations, our linguists know there's more to professional translation services than mere words. That's why they come armed with specialist legal, technical, commercial and scientific translation skills. And the knowledge that perfect translation oils the wheels of international business.